A few months ago a friend asked me if I had ever read, or seen, The Sand Pebbles. I replied that the closest I’d come was the Mad Magazine parody of the film. My friend felt this was a serious gap in my experience and offered to loan me the book and his DVD of the film.
Two things I should explain at this point. The first is that I’m always open to trying new things. That is, assuming they’re not utterly insane, extremely illegal or likely to cause harm. (Mildly insane, slightly illegal or probably harmless, yeah, okay, keep talking.) I would rather try a new restaurant than one I know, and I’ve turned down many a road just to see where it went.
The second thing is that, as much as I love movies, I’m not real big on war movies or westerns. The friend mentioned above loves both, and has been rather pointed sometimes about the “gaps” in my collection.
I can’t really account for the general lack of interest in westerns. And there are many exceptions. I like the Clint Eastwood westerns, starting with the “spaghetti westerns” and all the way to Unforgiven, which I thought was his masterpiece. (I’ve heard comments about, but have not yet seen, his speech at the RNC. As with Mel Gibson, people you’ve liked can surprise you unpleasantly sometimes.)
But it’s also because Open Range is a very cool western. The gun fight scene at the end, for the first time in a western, gave me the feel of being in the middle of it. You could hear the sound of bullets whizzing past, and the lenses and camera positions were selected to make you feel like you were standing right there.
(As I understand it, the entire gun fight was choreographed as realistically as possible. Then they figured out how to film it.)
Come to think of it, I can name other westerns I’ve enjoyed. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for example. And Bad Day At Black Rock (although some question whether it’s really a western). Maybe it’s that I was never really into “The Duke,” who—along with Eastwood—is America’s Mr. Western (The Duke did a lot of war movies, too).
But when it comes to war films, I do know why I have such a low interest. Two reasons, actually. Most war films are World War II films, and that usually means Nazis. To quote some guy, “I hate Nazis!” I think they should be completely forgotten, ignored, set behind us as a key entry on the Never Do This Again list. I don’t want them in my books or my movies or any part of my life.
The second—somewhat related—reason is a growing dissatisfaction with death as entertainment. It bothered me that hundreds of computer-generated beings died for my entertainment in the final battle in LOTR. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the computer-generated wives waiting and worrying back in their computer-generated homes.
[As a kid, I couldn’t watch Lassie, because I was always terrified something bad would happen to Lassie. Forget Timmy and the well; I was concerned about the dog!]
So, while I like the military and enjoy films about the military (remember, JAG and NCIS are all-time favorites), I’m just not big on actual war movies (parodies or black comedies are a different matter). And, truth be told, as a life-long science fiction fan, both westerns and war movies have a serious lack of aliens, spaceships or laser guns.
But when a friend (especially one whose judgement I regard) says, “You really need to read this book (or see this movie),” my response is, “Okay, gimme.”
My friend hit a home run on this one. The Sand Pebbles is most excellent! Considering it was not even close to the sort of book I would pick for myself, it was an enthralling story. And the movie, which stars Steven McQueen, is very good and very faithful to the book.
I’m not going to talk about the book or film. You can read about it at Wikipedia if you want to. I’m providing a context for a quote from the book. This bit of text spoke to me so strongly that I typed it into a text file to save forever. The quote speaks about a guy like me.
All you need to know now is that Jake Holman, the protagonist, entered the military to escape legal punishment, became an Machinist’s Mate and has a serious problem with authority. Here’s the quote:
The secret was simple. They could not get along without the machinery. If it did not run, the ship would be a cold, dark, dead hulk in the water. And it did not work with engines to order them to run and to send down the marines to shoot them if they did not run. No admiral could court-martial an engine. All machinery cared about a man was what he knew and what he could do with his two hands, and nobody could fool it on those things. Machinery always obeyed its own rules, and if you broke the rules it didn’t matter how important or charming or pure in heart you were, you couldn’t get away with it. Machinery was fair and honest and it could force people to be fair and honest. Jake Holman began to love machinery.
It brought his mind alive again. Just as it had been with him in high school, he found that he could learn the inner secrets of machinery faster than anybody else. Just as it had been with his high school teachers, he discovered the basic ignorance of his senior petty officers, and of course they hated him for that. But they were also accountable to their officers for the machinery, and they were all secretly afraid of their machinery, and when they were convinced that Jake Holman knew more about it than they could ever learn, they were happy enough to let him take care of it and keep them out of trouble. The only favor he wanted in return was to be excused from all the musters and inspections and topside military crap. That was an easy favor to grant, and they always granted it. Whenever he could, Holman always transferred to a smaller ship. The smaller the ship, the less they had of military crap.
Jake Holman is another soul brother. As with Doctor House, I see myself in every word. I have survived, flourished, by being very good in the arcane arts of machines. I understand the hearts of machines. And I have used that skill to be “excused from all the musters” and “crap.” And I have been hated for being better at it than them.
When I first read those two paragraphs, I went back and read them again. And then again. And then I thought, “Okay. So I’m not the only one. Someone gets it.” (If I have one major complaint about my life, it’s that so few people truly get me.)
I share this with you as an insight into yours truly and to perhaps open a door to a new experience. Who knows, maybe you, too, will find yourself in this.
In closing, one thing about the book (or movie) should you read (or see) it for the first time. At some point during the tale, you may find yourself thinking, “Oh, this can’t end well.” You want to go with that feeling and brace yourself. The story is a tragedy in the classic sense.
And, thankfully, Hollywood didn’t Hollywoodize the ending.